What makes for a long and happy life?
Most people chase after money and fame as if these were the keys to living long and happy. We live in a society that highly rewards actors, actresses and basketball players over teachers and policemen. Yet we also hear of rich or famous people taking their own lives. So what is the secret really? What should we invest on today to have a happy and healthy tomorrow?
Fortunately, we now have a scientific basis for determining this. Dr. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, shared the findings of this study which began in 1938 with 268 men. At that time Harvard was an all-male school so the participants were all men. The study would later take in an additional 456 boys from Boston’s poorest families — these boys were specifically chosen because of their very troubled and disadvantaged backgrounds.
So what we now have is data that encompasses nearly 80 years of the lives of these 724 men, around 60 of whom are still alive and still participating in the study. What the researchers do every year is to ask these men, asking about their lives at home, at work, their health, family, friends, and so on. They do face-to-face interviews, gather medical records, even go so far as to getting blood samples or x-rays or brain scans themselves. They talk to their wives and children, and even take videos of husband and wife talking together about their deepest concerns.
The result is a robust year by year account of the lives of these boys who grew to different walks of life — lawyers, bankers, doctors and even one president of the United States. Some of them had rags-to-riches stories while others made the journey in the opposite direction.
The founders of the study have long passed away and they would probably never have imagined that what they started would have lasted this long. But we are fortunate that it has because we now have a glimpse of the answer to the question most people ask — what is the key to a happy and healthy life?
And the answer is the good life is built with good relationships. So while it may be interesting to have money and fame and to exercise and watch your diet, the study found that those who live the longest and happiest were those who were in steady and secure relationships — people who knew there were other people they could depend on, whom they could trust with their lives.
Those in the study who were more socially connected turned out to be happier, healthier and they lived longer. The converse is also true — those who were lonelier than they wanted to be, who were more socially disconnected and isolated, deteriorated faster in terms of health and brain function, and they lived shorter lives.
Another insight from the data is that it is not just the number of social connections that you have — meaning it’s not just the quantity of your friends — but the quality of your friendship that matters. Rather than having a large number of casual acquaintances, having a few good friends, or a spouse whom you can really talk to about your innermost desires, anxieties, and so on, is very important.
As Waldinger says about these people, “At age 50, it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80’s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.”
Good relationships also seem to protect our brains. Those who reported good relationships in their 80’s had sharper memories than those who were in conflicted relationships.
Some of you who began reading this article would probably already have known the answer. In fact, the answer is not surprising or new to us at all. Yet despite this, why do people chase after the wrong things? Waldinger says that it’s because we usually want the quick fix and the easy solution — and relationships are anything but easy. They are complicated and messy and require a lot of work.
But the payoff is worth it. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get to work.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.
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